Catching up with Wayne Gretzky

March, 25, 2010

Every hockey fan's dream is playing out over the next few days in Las Vegas.

Imagine taking a pass from Brian Leetch or Denis Savard, skating around Larry Robinson and roofing it on Grant Fuhr.

That's the chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity that 70 people signed up for this week at the eighth annual Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp.

The event has been held in Los Angeles and Phoenix in the past but sets up shop this year in the city that never sleeps. Four teams will compete daily starting Thursday, with the Gretzky Cup awarded after the championship game Sunday afternoon.

"It's pretty exciting," Gretzky told on Wednesday. "We have Mike Keenan coaching a team, my dad coaching a team and my brother coaching a team. So it gets pretty hot and disputed. But at the end of the day, it's all fun."

The thrill doesn't come cheap. It's $10,999 per camper, but proceeds benefit the Wayne Gretzky Foundation. I actually have a buddy from northern Ontario who forked up the dough to attend the camp a few years ago, and he's never once regretted it.

Gretzky himself gets a kick out of the camp.

"Well, I have more fun than anybody," The Great One said. "It's all about giving the people that come an opportunity to feel like they're at an NHL training camp. So it's five days of hanging around people like Larry Robinson, Denis Savard, the Courtnall brothers and Grant Fuhr and others. From that point of view, it's exciting.

"And the other side of it is, I bring in ex-NHL trainers and ex-NHL therapists, the campers get full equipment, home and away jerseys and socks, pants, sticks, gloves. It just feels like a real training camp. We treat it like they're going to a real NHL camp for five days, and they get an opportunity to play with some of the greatest players who have ever played the game. It's funny, but the NHL guys seem like they're having more fun than anybody. They get out there and have a ball."

The playing level varies from camper to camper.

"We have girls, and they're very good," Gretzky said. "We have older guys who haven't played a lot who aren't that good, but that's OK. We have young guys who feel like they're trying out for an NHL team. We have players of all levels. There is a fit for everyone. It's just a lot of fun for everybody."

Gretzky's enthusiasm for the event is evident. I tell this to friends all the time, but you can't believe how much of a hockey fan Gretzky is. Sure, he's the greatest player who has ever lived, but he's also a fan. He watches a ton of hockey and loves to just sit down over a pop and talk about the game.

"You know what, I love the game; it's the greatest game in the world," Gretzky said. "What's more important to me is that the game is better now. These players today, [Sidney] Crosby and [Alex] Ovechkin and players of that caliber, the goaltending -- [Roberto] Luongo, [Martin] Brodeur, [Marc-Andre] Fleury -- they're also better. That's an evolution of the game, that's a positive. It doesn't mean we weren't good when we played, it just means we're progressing. The game is better today than when we played. It's pretty simple. These guys are pretty good today, and they're fun to watch."

Gretzky still doesn't have any official NHL capacity since stepping down as Phoenix Coyotes coach in September amid the bankruptcy controversy that enveloped the team. His charity and corporate schedule keeps him darn busy, but one wonders when or if he'll return to the NHL.

In the meantime, there were rumors Gretzky might take on a role with Team Canada for the upcoming world championships in Germany under GM and good buddy Mark Messier. It sounds as if Gretzky will help out in an unofficial capacity.

"Mess and I talked a little bit about it last week, and I said I'd help out in any way I can," Gretzky said. "I've been involved with Team Canada at the world championships in 2001 [in Hannover, Germany], got involved with [GM] Lanny McDonald that year, and obviously running the Olympic team a couple of times [2002 and 2006], so I told him any advice he wanted I could give him. So I will be involved more behind the scenes in helping out."

Gretzky believes Messier was an inspired choice by Hockey Canada.

"I think Mess is a natural stepping stone in taking over the Olympic team whenever Stevie [Yzerman] steps down," Gretzky said. "Nobody has won more than Mark, and nobody understands the game more than Mark. He'll do a great job. I told him, 'You probably won't need my help, but if you need any advice on players or strategic stuff, just give me a call.' So I'll be involved in a way that's behind the scenes."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




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